The Secret of Cawley’s Skull

PART TWO

BERTIE’S BALL

Chapter 12

        I was not blessed with a glorious nose. Peter and Ah-Teena might have left hours earlier, or minutes, but I didn’t possess refined enough olfactory tools to detect those more arcane details. There are Dahm-0gg who can find and follow a trail days after the trail was laid, or even weeks. That’s what I’ve heard, of Oggs who can snuffle through pig dung and still pick out the good mushrooms from among the bad, or sit under a willow tree in a high wind and tell you if the swallows pirouetting about overhead ate mayflies or grasshoppers for their evening meal. That comes with owning a glorious nose, a ‘SBlood-Hund’s nose, or a Gher-Mane Setter’s nose.

        But I was not blessed with such a nose. It is no reflection on my Mom that a glorious nose is not one of a Ween-Dok’s assets, and though I am half Kok-Spanelle, who are rumored to have decent—if not glorious—noses, the half that came to me from my father evidently did not include his smelling talents, for I was not blessed with even a decent nose.

        I can out-smell a man, any man, but anything can out-smell a man. If men could smell even as well as fish do, would they anoint themselves with the ghastly odors they seem so fond of, or would they allow their machines to spew forth such disgusting effluence?

        Chew said the secret of humanity’s noxious ways is that they have a word for everything—that without so many words, they might better understand what they’re always talking about. Peter believed they are simply born evil, and Mish-Shka felt that without such large minds, men might have found a way to fit in, to feel more comfortable with themselves. I would suggest that it’s a problem of bad noses. With better noses, men would be better neighbors, and when it comes down to simple answers to complex dilemmas, better neighbors are all we really ask for.

* * *

        I have a good enough nose to be a good neighbor, but I don’t have a good enough nose to follow a trail through a strange, wet forest. The rain was over and the clouds had shrunk back to the size at which they best skip across the sky. But everything was still dripping. Within a few feet of the cavern’s gate, my coat was soaked to the pink skin, and by the time I reached the creek, water was running off my snout in a steady stream. I guess I should consider myself fortunate to have a nose which at least diverts water away from my eyes.

        Louis was atop the same rock Ah-Teena had occupied the night before. He saw me before I saw him. “Meezzer Dagz, whay’yer yew doon hee-yah?  Yew aft’ a dring o’ wahdare, or ‘re yew jes take a walg?”

        “What?”

        He spoke with some sort of accent that was barely understandable. In time, I learned that Louis had been inadvertently left at a campground by a family of foreign tourists. He didn’t seem to matter enough to them to return and search for him, but nobody dares say that to his face.

        “What?”—but before he had time to repeat himself, I asked him, “Peter and Miss Ah-Teena … which way did they go?”

        “Wize yew woonna knew, leedle fella?  Deyz be lahwn gahwn.”

        “I … wull, uh … you see, Mish-Shka wanted me to tell them something … just one last thing. It’s important, Mister Louis. Which way did they go?”

        “Atta wee. ‘Eh wend atta wee, fella,”  and he thrust his nose into the wind to show me. “Bud yew’ll nevah gatch ’em, Dagz. ‘Em leff ‘fore da rain stoppa fallin’. ‘Em leff nodda long aft’ da zun go dahwn.”

        They left just after the sun went down. That information meant little to me since I had no idea when the sun had gone down, and I barely heard Louis’ admonishment, anyway. As soon as he gave me a direction to follow, I followed it … followed Louis’ nose … not having a decent one of my own to follow.

* * *

        The direction Louis’ nose had given me was uphill, into the wind. The brush was thicker, the rocks were sharper and the water was colder, uphill. “Up” is my least favorite direction. My legs tire quickly and my breath comes harder when I have to move “up.”  And didn’t Ah-Teena say something about a badger—a “particularly cranky badger“—living uphill?

        But I had no choice. Louis had given me my direction, and it was the only direction available to me.

        My view of Louis, the rock he was perched upon, and everything else familiar, was quickly obscured by the tangle of forest. I looked back often, to see if I was being followed. Maybe Mish-Shka had changed his mind. Maybe he meant to stop me. It wouldn’t have taken him long to catch me if he wished. Even Henrietta traveled on legs three times as long as mine. Mathematically speaking, I could scramble away for three hours, convinced that I was gaining ground, while they remained in the dry cavern for two hours, sleeping and eating. Then they could leisurely rise from their hot potatoes and dry beds, and catch me after a mere hour of pursuit. What a difference leg length means. Had I spent more time thinking about it, I would have realized that the legs I was chasing were every bit as long as the legs I feared might come after me. For every step I took, Peter and Ah-Teena were that much farther away from me.

* * *

        In a general way, the stream came from the same direction the wind did, and that was helpful. The wind gave me a constant and the stream gave me a path. Were I to leave the streambed, I would have encountered a very rough road indeed. Brambles covered the banks in profusion, as thick as feathers, and the brambles were covered with thorns, as thick as teeth. I discovered the thorns when either the water or the wind changed directions and I, having elected to side with the wind, tried to leave the creek floor. My choice might have been right, but had I pursued that course, I would have torn myself to shreds. A few pricks on my chest, nose, and forepaws convinced me that my lot was best cast with the stream. Its bed was relatively free of vegetation, just moss and the occasional misguided sapling, and after I had learned to negotiate the slippery rocks and greedy mud, I got along well. I nicked a foot on a broken crayfish shell, but it was a small nick. It hurt in an insignificant way, mattering little, as did the ache from my stubbed tail and the other pains I had amassed. I was to discover that having a strong purpose allows one to disregard a great many distractions. And, oh my, did I have a purpose. Never in my memory had I been so compelled.

        I dried off as I traveled, and the forest dried with me. The wind grew in intensity and clouds raced across the sky as though they were being chased by something horrid. Thorny brambles rattled and trees groaned. Things that had no business moving moved in the dark with alarming agility. I fought back fear with every ounce of me that wasn’t involved in walking, and I came near to losing the battle several times. Behind me, onto a spot I had just crossed, the grotesque limb of a cottonwood tree came crashing out of the canopy with a horrible, splitting sound, so loud it must have been heard miles away. If I hadn’t stopped a few minutes earlier and deposited my solid wastes on a flat rock, I would have voided myself there and then.

        A little later, as I sat for a moment and rested my legs (which were still wobbly from the fright the falling limb had put into me) a ghastly creature with an oily coat and a tail entirely devoid of hair nosed its way out of a hole in the mud at the base of the thorn bushes and slithered down the slope, disappearing into the water. It passed so near to me, I could have vomited on its filthy back, but it paid no attention to me. It reeked of mildew and dead vegetation. It scared me, but not nearly as much as the creatures that subsequently slithered out of my imagination. The thing reminded me that one is never alone, anywhere or anytime, and especially out here in these black woods. I couldn’t tell which thought seemed scarier—to be alone, or to have unwelcome company.

* * *

        Before the wind finally died away, it grew much stronger. Trees swayed as though they wanted to pull themselves out of the ground and follow the clouds, and rumblings came from deep within the forest that made me think some of the more restless ones had accomplished that goal. Shadows twisted into every possible shape that a terror-filled mind might reshape into something more dreadful.

        A mere two days earlier, I couldn’t have done what I did. I wouldn’t have continued. Two days earlier, I was a toddler, as uncommitted as Poo-Lee the pupper. It is astonishing what having a compelling purpose can do for one’s nervous stamina. Mish-Shka’s admonition about fear came back to me unbeckoned. “It’s useless to pursue fear, you know. If you run after it, it will be all you see and all that occupies your mind. It will corrupt you and turn you against everything, even yourselves.”

        Continually, the wind changed direction, undecided about where it wished to go. Had I nothing but that wind to rely upon for guidance, I wouldn’t have been zigzagging about like a befuddled butterfly. But I stayed with the water, convinced that eventually the wind would settle down and be happy with its original course. I hoped that would happen.

        I prayed that would happen.

        Whatever information Louis had given me with his slender nose had expired long ago. I was afraid that without the wind giving me a reliable heading, I would have no more idea which way Peter and Ah-Teena went than I had about why the wind blew in the first place. They might already have left the stream and be far away, trotting into a horizon I couldn’t even see. Peter wouldn’t have allowed a few thorns and dense brambles to restrict him to this paltry creek bed. If I were to catch them, the only landmark I had to follow was the wind—the erratic wind—which was blowing my ears first forwards, then backwards. A few times, it even turned my ears inside out and to straighten them, I had to shake my head as though my nose was crammed with foxtails. The last thing I wanted was to have Ah-Teena see me with inverted ears.

        Then the stupid wind stopped blowing entirely. The forest stood up straight and remained at attention. The cacophony that a billion trees make when they’re being bullied around ended. Suddenly, I missed the frightening noise because the silence was even more frightening. I could hear my own breathing.

        Worse yet … as I strained my ears, I could hear the breathing of something else.

        Something behind me.

        Welcome or not, company had come calling.

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